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#5 Michigan State at Purdue Preview

The Spartans come to West Lafayette red hot.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

One of the biggest surprises in all of college football is Michigan State. They were picked to finish fifth in the East Division of the Big Ten, but now they have risen to third in the initial CFP rankings. It has been an impressive turnaround from a dismal 2020 season in which they went 2-5 after a 6-6 2019 season. Everyone begins a season with a wealth of optimism, but no one really expected this out of the Spartans.

The addition of Kenneth Walker III has been huge, as he has played like a Heisman Trophy candidate. They have gotten it done with a mixture of good defense and a solid running game. The offense has done extremely well, averaging just under 35 points per game. With a scoring defense giving up about 20 points per game that is a great recipe for success.

If I had to describe them, I would say they are business-like. They are not flashy except for big plays from Walker. They are balanced and avoid mistakes. They will be a tough out, but they have walked a fine line of disaster with a few close calls. Coming off of a huge win over Michigan, the hopes are for a letdown on the road. For Purdue, it is a chance to wreck another top 5 team’s season.

2020 Record: 2-5

2021 Record: 8-0, 5-0

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: The Only Colors

Series with Purdue: Michigan State leads 36-28-3

Last Purdue win: 17-15 at Michigan State on 11/4/2006

Last Michigan State win: 23-13 at Michigan State on 10/27/2018 (8th straight win)

Head Coach: Mel Ticker (10-5 in 2nd year at Michigan State, 15-12 overall)

Their Season So Far

So why is there hope for Purdue? Well, the Spartans were very lucky to escape their game with Nebraska game with a win. A punt return for a score with just under four minutes to go forced overtime, where they won 23-20 on an interception and field goal. They had a very good non-conference win at Miami where they blew open a 17-14 lead with a 21-3 fourth quarter after hammering away on the Hurricanes for three quarters. They had a 20-15 defensive struggle at Indiana where they were held in check offensively, but did enough defensively. Last week they needed to come back from 16 down late in the third quarter to ruin Michigan.

There is no question this is a good team. If they have one weakness it is a last place pass defense in terms of the Big Ten. With Purdue’s propensity to throw first that gives us a shot. They can play with the lead by grinding you down and play from behind if they need to come back. It will not be easy if Purdue is going to pull the upset.

Who to Watch on Offense

Kenneth Walker III – RB – Purdue is about to face the best running back in America. He is second in the country with 1,194 yards rushing and he has scored 14 TDs. He trails only Syracuse’s Sean Tucker, who Purdue will see next year in the non-conference. Walker burst onto the scene with 264 yards and 4 TDs against Northwestern in the season opener, including a 75 yard TD on the first play of the season. He had 172 against Miami (and his only receiving TD), 233 and a score against Rutgers, and 197 and 5 TDs against Michigan. He can be slowed though. Nebraska held him to 61 yards on 19 carries. Indiana held him to 84 on 23 carries. He has yet to fumble on 183 touches this season, so that is just how dangerous he is. He is also a big play threat with TD runs of 75 and 94 yards. If he goes off, Purdue is going to have a very long day.

Payton Thorne – QB – Thorne has been fine, giving Michigan State great balance with Walker. He has 1,897 yards on 131 completions with 15 TDs against on 6 interceptions. He has been sacked 13, so the offensive line has done well. You would expect that with such a good running back thought. This team reminds me of the really good Wisconsin teams in that they have an outstanding running back, plus a QB that manages well and does not make mistakes. That doesn’t bode well for us.

Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor – WR – I list both of them because their stats are almost identical. Reed has 33 receptions for 642 yards and 5 touchdowns. Nailor has 31 catches for 587 yards and 6 TDs. They also give the Spartans tremendous offensive balance. Both are capable of hitting on the big play, so being aware of the playaction game is critical for Purdue’s defense.

Who to Watch on Defense

Xavier Henderson – S – Henderson has patrolled the middle well with 67 tackles and an interception. He can also come up and cause trouble in the backfield with a pair of sacks. He leads a swarming defense that Purdue’s offensive line will struggle with. They are second in the Big Ten with 26 sacks, and they come from 13 different players.

Jacub Panasiuk – DE – Panasiuk is one of the best individual pass rushers in the Big Ten with 5.5 sacks. Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal and Nick Herbig are both ahead of him with 11.5 sacks combined, but those two are an example of the kind of trouble Panasiuk can cause. Chenal had 3.5 sacks against Purdue, so the Boilers cannot afford to let Panasiuk have a similar day. All this said, Michigan State’s overall pass defense is last in the Big Ten at over 300 yards per game. If Purdue can protect Aidan and O’Connell and he can avoid interceptions, it should be able to move the ball.

Quavaris Crouch – LB – Crouch is 8th in the Big Ten with 65 tackles and 2 sacks, plus a forced fumble and fumble recovery. That gives Michigan State an elite player in all three levels of the defense. Despite the passing vulnerability, the defense is only giving up 20.5 points per game. They let you move between the 20s, then keep you out of the end zone. Since that has been Purdue’s MO in the last three home games, I am worried. They have only given up 14 touchdowns on 32 opponent red zone trips.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Matt Coghlin – K – Coughlin is a decent kicker. He hasn’t missed an extra point and is 10 of 15 on field goals with a long of 51. As a fifth year guy he has hit 74 of 100 kicks in his career, making him one of the all-time Big Ten leaders. He is second all-time in attempts and makes in league history.

Bryce Baringer – P – One thing helping Michigan State is their punter, who is averaging over 50 yards per kick. That is a huge weapon for field position, especially given Purdue’s struggles there.

Jayden Reed – PR – Reed has returned two punts for scores, including his huge one against Nebraska. With Jack Ansell’s propensity to have shorter punts, that might help a little in containing Reed.

Game Outlook

The more I look at this team, the more I see a “Good Wisconsin” team. Since we couldn’t beat “mediocre Wisconsin” two weeks ago, that is cause for concern. This is a team that can run and run, then hit big on the playaction. They are stingy with points in the red zone. They have a great pass rusher that can end drives with a big sack. They have game changers in special teams too. They tend to do all the things that Purdue struggles with. Even when Walker was contained by Nebraska they still hit on a big special teams play.

The recipe for success seems to be the same as it was the last few weeks: Have the defense continue to play well, limit the run as best we can, and finish drives on offense. The Aidan O’Connell of the Nebraska and Iowa games can win this. The Aidan O’Connell of Minnesota and Wisconsin will lead to a blowout loss. If we can’t protect him and he starts throwing picks we have no chance.

This really feels like a bad matchup for Purdue. I hate to say that, but if Walker goes off and we can’t protect O’Connell then we’re in trouble.